By Lara McTeigue
During our first week in Malawi, we took 2 Chichewa lessons. Our teacher was a local man who had just finished Teachers College and works with TPM to help run the Learning Lab on campus. We had a session amongst our student group about intercultural communication prior to these classes where we discussed differences from individualist and collectivist cultures. One of the points of variance raised concerned how learners and teachers operate in the classroom in terms of asking questions. In collectivist societies, students may tend to refrain from asking questions in the classroom setting to avoid making the teacher look as if they did not do their job competently. With the new awareness of this cultural norm, I found myself feeling hyper sensitive to my natural dispositions. I was second-guessing my own instincts to question the presentation of course content in order to gain a deeper understanding; something I would habitually do in Canada.
Our first lesson together started off with the introduction of a greeting. “How are you” was translated on the board from English to Chichewa and we repeated the phrase after the teacher aloud several times. We were then asked one by one to say the phrase aloud. Kate, a student returning to Malawi for a second time, asked the teacher then what the very first thing you should say upon meeting someone is. We learnt that “how are you” is in fact what Malawians say when meeting for the very first time. I thought about the encounters we had had so far with locals and how they often replied “fine” when we would say “hello” or “nice to meet you”. This would explain the error. It also would be an early glimpse at how teaching with this very rehearsed “I say, we say, you say” structure that prepares students to reply with standard memorized responses in the language class really hinders their ability to communicate in authentic situations outside of the constructed classroom context.
Our teacher then jumped into teaching us numbers and days of the week using the similar threefold repetitive method. It was quickly being affirmed that repetition and memorization were patterns of teaching here without much explanation or deeper thinking of the content presented. We were asked to repeat the sayings aloud and then to close our books and practice in front of our peers. When questioned by the teacher, he often followed by asking if we were “confident” in our responses several times. He would also ask the class, “does she have the right answer?” Instead of encouraging us by praising our efforts, it became very intimidating to participate. I imagined that learners may be discouraged from contributing if the possibility to be ridiculed by peers was so high. On several occasions he also asked that we guess the next word to come without any prior knowledge to work off of. I found that this unfamiliar teaching style was slightly frustrating but we were able to chuckle off the majority of the awkwardness for now.
Chichewa is also an alphabetical language, like English or French, and so our second lesson started with a Chichewa song to help us remember the unique pronunciation of vowels. The song was short and fairly easy to perform. We sang it nearly 10 times in a row. We were all getting anxious about the chunk of time spent on singing from our short class together. We realized we were entering the schools and communities soon with next to no practical language knowledge. The teacher planned to move into parts of the body next but several of us collectively began to feel more comfortable to verbalize our learning expectations. As we grew more at ease with raising questions and steering our own learning, we learnt more subtle cultural features of the language. For example, adding ‘please’ to a request is a sign of begging rather than simple politeness. I always knew that language classrooms were spaces rich with cultural influences but as someone who had not personally been in the position as language learner for quite some time, I was reminded of how much one can learn of another culture while learning the language spoken.
I was perceiving the new language standards that we were learning and the teaching style carried out as being very much so a reflection of the country in which it took place. Through reading Pennycook, I’ve come to understand that the parallels I drew from my observations of the class (which were causing me to question what I previously learned about effective learning) and what I knew of the socio-political-cultural state in Malawi was more so “part of the outside world, and play[s] a role in how that outside world operates.” This awareness would come to help me comprehend the structures in the Malawian classrooms as results of the nation’s narrative. Considering Malawi’s history as a colonized nation which had only gained independence a mere 60 years ago, its education system and teaching practices are still young. How they develop their own institutions will be a big factor in how the country progresses and gains resilience as an independent state. When frustrations arise surrounding methods that are different from ones we are used to applying in our own classrooms, it is imperative that this context is kept in mind.
Schools are spaces that mold young students on a fundamental level. As learners and teachers who are constantly trying to improve our systems, we must try to push the confines of the four walls of our familiar classrooms if we hope to avoid having them become spaces that “serve to maintain the status quo” (Pennycook, 2000).